Omicron: The new COVID variant

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A petrol attendant stands next to a newspaper headline in Pretoria, South Africa, Nov. 27, 2021. As the world grapples with the emergence of the new variant of COVID-19, scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its spread across the country. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

By J. K. Schmid
Special to the AFRO

A new COVID-19 variant has been identified and named Omicron.

The new variant was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 24 and was deemed a “variant of concern.” The organization gave the variant its name, Omicron, on  Nov. 26.

“Variants of concern” are those COVID-19 variants with one or multiple of the following features: the ability to evade testing, the increased transmissibility, morbidity and mortality and those variants that can resist antiviral drugs and neutralizing antibodies, and those variants that can cause reinfections or infect the vaccinated.

The WHO identifies Omicron as having an increased risk of reinfection, and while it does not evade testing, Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests do not detect one of the three targeted genes of the test.

Failure in PCR tests to detect the third gene in an otherwise positive COVID test is being used to rapidly identify the Omicron variant. 

This is the fifth WHO variant of concern after Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

Initial studies of the Omicron variant reveal no new symptoms and some infected are asymptomatic.

The White House released guidelines in a Nov. 26 statement.

First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness, fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults, the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible,” President Joe Biden said in the statement. “Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. They are safe, free, and convenient. Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season.”

“Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today,” the statement continues. “This includes both children and adults. America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.”

In the meantime, the United States is restricting air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious — make sure there is no travel to and from South Africa and six other countries in that region and — except for American citizens who are able to come back,” Mr. Biden told reporters Friday.

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